Want to keep ’em in jail? Go federal

When Charleston police set their sights on a large crew of drug dealers hustling heroin on the city’s West Side in 2006, they knew the best way of shutting them down was to team up with federal authorities.

That’s because the federal court system has stricter bail guidelines for repeat offenders, making it easier to keep chronic thugs behind bars.

The last defendant in the sprawling case pleaded guilty in federal court this week. He, like many of the others, stewed in jail while awaiting trial. And Charleston police said that helped curb crime in the West Side neighborhood, making it a safer place to live.

“Once we can get someone in the federal system, it offers more opportunities to keep them off the street. The bonding process is much different,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said. “And once they get sentenced, there is no parole in the federal system. So it is significant when we can do that.”

Not every case can be prosecuted federally, which is why Lowcountry law enforcement officials and prosecutors have been fighting to reform the state’s bonding system. Last year’s attempt in the Legislature failed. But this go-around there is hope, Mullen said.

This week the S.C. Senate passed a bond-revocation reform bill with a 42-0 vote. The bill focuses on preventing repeat offenders, who already are out of jail on bail, from continuing to commit crimes — what officials commonly refer to as the revolving door.

Currently, the process to revoke someone’s bail and re-incarcerate them while they await trial can be complicated and time-consuming, Mullen said. “In the meantime, the community is victimized,” he said.

This bill would prevent magistrates from setting new bail for offenders who commit serious crimes while free and awaiting trial for crimes of a similar magnitude. Those crimes include such things as armed robbery, second-degree burglary, voluntary manslaughter and arson.

Instead, the bill would require the defendant to go before a circuit judge within 30 days of his or her arrest. Circuit judges have the authority to revoke the initial bail that allowed the offender to get out in the first place, and keep that offender behind bars.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said sending repeat offenders to circuit court would allow for more careful consideration of the defendant’s background and pending cases. “There can be a more thorough presentation of the case,” she said.

Supporters say the bill would place a greater burden on repeat offenders to prove they are not a danger to the community.

The House of Representatives is now considering the measure. One of the House bill’s sponsors, Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said he expects it to pass.

“This is modeled after the federal court,” Wilson said. “This isn’t just something we made up. This is something I think can work and isn’t overly broad.”

Arthur Lawrence, president of the West Side neighborhood association, already is a supporter. He said he saw the difference in his neighborhood when the heroin crew was removed from the streets and held under the federal system.

“It’s a great help because they would go to jail, get bonded out and continue to do the same thing over and over again. So it made a big difference,” he said. “You stop seeing the amount of people congregating in a specific area where you know drugs are being sold. And also, you have to look at it that people are not fighting over territory anymore, frankly.

“So if they keep them in jail, it decreases people being killed on the streets,” he said. “For years, that was happening. They go in and come right back out and continue the wave of crime.”

Gary Lamontt Smith, 20, of Charleston, was one of those folks Lawrence encountered in his neighborhood. He cut his trial short this week in federal court and pleaded guilty to his involvement in the heroin distribution ring.

Eight people were originally indicted in the case, in which investigators seized 10,000 bags of branded heroin in June 2011. The number of defendants eventually grew to 26 people. As of this week, all eight of the original defendants have pleaded guilty to drug charges in federal court.

Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.